A magnificent journey of faith

A magnificent journey of faith
Mission Sunday Supplement
Missionaries succeed when they make missionary disciples, Greg Daly is told

It won’t have escaped the notice of regular readers of The Irish Catholic that time and again, whenever there’s a crisis somewhere around the world – Venezuela, Sudan, Hong Kong, wherever – Irish missionaries on the ground are able to describe hopes and fears and lived realities of people living in the globe’s hot spots.

According to Cashel and Emly’s Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly, Ireland’s missionary footprint has paid dividends even for the State’s diplomatic efforts, with it having played a role in our winning a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2001.

“One of the things that they found was they had these roving ambassadors from the Department of Foreign Affairs trying to pick up votes who found places in the middle of nowhere that an Irish brother had been teaching in, and literally the Minister for Foreign Affairs had been educated by him, and voted for Ireland.

“We have an extraordinary outreach,” he continues. “Not as much as before, but certainly still happening, and then there’s a great commitment when missionaries come home, to follow up and support them with issues surrounding the countries they’ve worked in.”


A member of the Society for African Missions, Archbishop Kieran’s first appointment on being ordained a priest in 1978 was to Liberia in West Africa – he was there when President William Tolbert was overthrown in the 1980 coup.

“That first mission experience I had was a kind of baptism of fire, really,” he says. Returning to Rome to study Scripture he was back in Africa in 1984, this time teaching in the seminary at Ibadan in Nigeria. After five years there, he came back to Europe to take a leadership role in own own missionary order.

“I was involved in the administration of my own society, the SMA in Cork, and afterwards in Rome, so I spent most of my time visiting sub-Saharan Africa – most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa – visiting our missionaries there,” he says.

Since 2010 he’s been solidly based in Ireland, first as Bishop as Killaloe and then since 2014 as Ireland’s southern metropolitan, heading the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, but the missions have always stayed close to his heart, such that Pope Francis’ decision to make this October an Extraordinary Month of Mission makes profound sense to him.

“The Roman tendency is always to mark anniversaries, and this is the centenary year of Benedict XV’s papal letter Maximum Illud, which came out in 1919,” he says. “When you think of the context of the time there you had the war just over – the devastating First World War – you had the Spanish flu still raging in many places, and you had the beginnings perhaps of a sense that the colonial world was coming to an end, that the old borders and the old empires were collapsing.

“I think what Pope Benedict wanted to do at the time was to declare loudly that the Christian message stands apart from any of these colonial kind of empires. He wanted to reiterate, as he said himself, that magnificent or incredible statement at the end of the Gospel: go, make disciples of all peoples, all nations,” he says.

Pope Francis, he says, is sounding that call afresh.

“In his documents he has very much stressed the whole aspect of everybody being missionary, and that we’re all missionary disciples, but even more so I think he still doesn’t want to take away the focus from that initial thrust of the Church to be outgoing and missionary to all cultures and all societies,” he says.

“Where we must be missionary in our own lives wherever we are, nonetheless there is that dimension of the Church that still wants to reach the peripheries, just like he’s talking about in the synod on the Amazon at the moment: it’s the very edges the Church should be going to.”


Just as Benedict XV had sought to distinguish the Church’s missionary activity from imperial colonialism, so Pope Francis makes a point of challenging cultural colonialism, Archbishop Kieran says.

“He’s so correct because it’s a different kind of colonialism, in many ways a far more subtle one because it’s insidious: it kind of occupies people’s minds and thought patterns, undermining their cultural values,” he says. “The Pope has consistently tried to highlight that fact because with the globalisation of everything in our world the values of cultures and peoples that have survived for generations and centuries, and more even, are completely undermined. There is that call that people are allowed to be themselves.”


The 2nd-Century Church Father  St Irenaeus of Lyons famously said that “the glory of God is man fully alive”, and for the archbishop a real challenge of missionaries is – without trampling identities – to help people and communities become fully alive in God.

Our belief as Christians is that what God ultimately wants us to be is his compassionate loving caring children through the mystery of his son Jesus Christ, but it’s very much to bring alive and fully alive the people who we work with,” he says. Missionaries nowadays tend to have a different concept of mission from decades ago, he explains, with it having something of a two-way character.

“The basic mental thing is that we express our common humanity and our common togetherness in all the struggles of daily life, but even more so as missionaries, we now must be open to how they live their Faith, how they express their encounter with the risen Lord,” he say, describing this as a “great enrichment” for people on missionary work.

“There are very few areas now of what we call ‘primary evangelisation’ compared to, say, 100 years ago,” he says. “There are significant areas like China that the Pope is concentrating on, but in many, many areas now you’re going to communities that are already there, but communities that have been able to understand and develop their own Faith journeys. That’s one of the things about the Amazon synod that Pope Francis is trying to do – to highlight how the people there must be given the opportunity to understand and experience their own Faith journey.”

Not that primary evangelisation doesn’t happen even in established mission territories, he adds, pointing out that this can be a real challenge in the huge cities that are springing up in Africa.

“I was back in Nigeria this year for the ordination of one of my students as a bishop in southern Nigeria,” he begins, noting how he’d been struck by the size of the cities there. “You really have a world there were people are crying out for a deeper understanding of their spiritual lives and evangelisation. So primary evangelisation, while it is retained in the rural areas, is still very much what Pope Benedict XVI would have said to be in the new marketplaces, to be in the new places where people are encountering each other, and that’s the great cities of Africa.”

That a former student from Archbishop Kieran’s days as a seminary professor should have been ordained a bishop this year is just one example of how the Church in Africa has its own momentum, and the archbishop is clearly proud of how Irish missionary orders have helped foster missionary disciples in turn.

“The local clergy have grown in numbers considerably,” he says. “There is phenomenal growth in the cities of Africa, largely of local clergy. Missionary groups and missionary institutes are now working with – if you like – sons and daughters of Africa who are part of their institutes like my own SMA, and they are engaged in evangelisation, and engaged in the working of the various projects that the Church would have.”


The Pope’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ is proving very helpful for drawing together the threads of the Church’s missionary character and its imperative to work to help the poor and the circumstances in which they live.

“It’s a huge project in the big cities, where there is a misuse of so much of the resources of nature and it’s something that the Church has to continually challenge,” he says. “It effects people’s lives – the quality of life that they have, the way they live – and so the Church and missionary institutes give a real insight and direction to how best to make life for everybody in the community better.”

Citing the ‘Laudato Tree’ project, which seeks to plant a kind of ‘green wall’ across Africa to stop desertification, Archbishop Kieran says this kind of ‘work of mercy’ intended to help the poorest where they live is essential to Christian life.

“That is integral to the Gospel, really,” he says. “It’s at the heart of the care and the compassion for everyone who matters – the missionary preaching of the Gospel is ideal but then people in their communities must be able to activate that in support of themselves and their children and their brothers and sisters, and one of the ways is that extra care of the community world that they live in.”

When we went out we spent a number of months listening and literally watching the culture of Liberia and West Africa before doing anything”

Pointing to how water is sold in African cities in plastic bags that are thrown away, such that “you see a mountain of those small plastic bags in any town”, he says care for our common home in all its facets is vital.

“It’s integral to the Gospel and perhaps the great challenge of this particular synod and other synods that will come will be to give people a fuller understanding of what that means,” he says.

At the same time, he notes how Pope Francis has maintained that Christian and missionary organisations should not simply allow themselves to become generic NGOs with a religious label pasted on.

“That has become a real challenge because in many ways international agencies are happy to channel different resources through the Church because the Church is usually located very much in the areas that they want to work in,” he says. “There is a challenge and a risk to ensure that the balance is kept between proclaiming prayer and living the Gospel, and at the same time carrying out these projects for the benefit of communities; the risk is that that becomes the main focus.”

Maintaining that remaining praying communities who witness to the Gospel values is central to missionary identity, he concedes that this is always difficult.

“You’re never going to get the balance completely right. I think it has changed a little bit because the international agencies are probably not using Church bodies quite as much anymore, because they have all different kinds of demands placed on them now, but for a while there that was certainly very strong.

“There are certain areas that governments ignore,” he continues, giving as an example small villages in rural areas which aren’t given resources.

“When you’re in a town that’s away up in the rural areas and you see the children having no education, you just want to get them to have a school, you want them to have clean water, and you certainly do all you can through fundraising and everything,” he says.

“You’re doing all of that because of the Gospel,” he continues. “You wouldn’t be there unless you really believed. It’s Faith takes you there, and Faith will keep you there, and then it’s the Faith of the people that will sustain you there when you are there, not only the people that you encounter, but the Faith of the people at home continuing to support you through prayer through contact through welcome when you come home and through resources on your way back.

“It’s a magnificent journey of Faith, there and here – it’s lived Faith really when people participate in these projects to help.”

Commenting on the adage that missionaries succeed when they make themselves redundant, Archbishop Kieran says: “Let’s say when he makes everybody else around him a missionary.”

He explains: “We would have Nigerians, men from the Ivory Coast, Kenyans, Tanzanians, all working as missionaries in other parts of Africa. You’re not doing yourself out of a job, but you are in so far as you make the community that you’re with missionary.”

Of course, these missionary disciples and communities still need help from countries like Ireland, he says.

“My own society, because we’re international, we still have our missionaries, young missionaries, and one of the realities is that while our Irish numbers have gone down and people are aging, we have resources because we have been really tremendously supported by Irish people,” he says.

“I can speak for my own Society of African missions, but it’s no different for the other societies. And we’re still using those resources for the sake of the Gospel who are our missionary personnel. It never gives up. I suppose that one of the aspects of the extraordinary month of mission is to highlight again the importance of the support.”


Noting how his old seminary in Nigeria was sustained with the help of money donated from ordinary parishioners in Ireland and Britain, the archbishop comments on how much help is needed to sustain the giant seminaries that have sprung up across Africa.

“There are 10 major seminaries – or there were the last time I counted – in Nigeria. The numbers have grown extraordinarily. When you’re forming candidates for priesthood, you’re trying to form them first of all and most importantly as good priests, spiritually capable of the work that they are being asked to do. Spiritual formation and academic work and all the rest is very important, and discernment and proper understanding on their part of what priesthood is very important.”

Ireland, of course, is mission territory itself nowadays, and one striking feature of the Irish landscape in recent years has been priests, brothers and sisters coming from abroad to help preach the Gospel and support the Church here. If Archbishop Kieran could bring one lesson from his missionary experience to bear on this situation, it is that he would encourage people here to allow our new missionary clergy and religious to integrate into our society.

“When we went out we spent a number of months listening and literally watching the culture of Liberia and West Africa before doing anything,” he says. “I think one of the important things is that if priests are going to come here to Ireland, whether they come from Poland or Africa or wherever – it doesn’t matter – is that they’re given the opportunity to integrate gently into our Church life.

Missionaries need to be given all the support and the best possible collaboration from people in the parish or the diocese to help them to settle in”

“Our Church life has changed and is changing very rapidly,” he continues, “so I think one of the important things is that when we do welcome priests – or like the Columbans who have had lay missionaries working here and religious congregations like the OLAs who have brought in sisters from Nigeria – that we give them the opportunity like we were given to be able to ease into and understand Ireland, to have good people to accompany them.”

Stressing the importance of this, he says such missionaries need to be given all the support and the best possible collaboration from people in the parish or the diocese to help them to settle in.

“I’d say that’s the first lesson we must learn here –  that they’re not just coming in but that they’re also coming with their own Faith background and their own people’s background just like we went from Ireland with ours, and with all our shortcomings.”

“We must have an open heart to listen to them, and how they express their faith in the risen Lord,” he says. “I think it’s very important that we as communities here open ourselves up to be able to integrate them into us. It’s important that we don’t just take them for granted but that we go out of our way to welcome them, like we were welcomed.”